Mar 07

Conkers (or acorns if you prefer) and investing in startups

In the early 1970s, British Railways ran excursion trains at weekends for families to get away for the day. For the most part they went to known destinations, but there were also “mystery trains” where you knew the duration of the journey but not the destination.

In 1972, my family (Mum, Dad, Sister & I) set off from Manchester Piccadilly to Windsor. It was a long journey, nearly four hours, but when we got there the sun was shining. Having left a grey & grimy Manchester in drizzle, we had arrived in a paradise.

My parents did the sights, my sister & I tagged along. Our parish priest had become vicar of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle (we visited him), my cousin worked on Home Farm (the Windsor Estate farm) so we visited her and had a tour. We walked in the sun and soaked up the affluence.

I can’t quite remember why, but my Mother was pretty keen to see the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede so we caught a bus (on a Sunday!). The bus dropped us by the river on Windsor Road and the driver told us it was a short walk to the memorial.

It is not exactly a short walk (1.5 miles) and it’s up hill!

By now, my sister (8) and I (12) were a bit bored, tired, hot… you get the picture.

I trailed last and as I walked along I kicked up leaves lying by the side of the path (I think this was April) and in the process disturbed a conker from a Horse Chestnut tree which had a sprout growing out of it.

This was more interesting than the walk, or memorial, so I wrapped it in a handkerchief and put it in my pocket.

The rest of the day went as expected, we saw the memorial (not that fascinating to a 12 year old), got the bus back, got the train home… and slept like logs.

The next day, I found the conker in my pocket. The sprout was intact, the damp from the leaf mulch had not dried out, and I decided to plant it.

I was no gardener, and we had only a small garden behind our suburban semi-detached house. Nonetheless, I planted it carefully, marked the boundary of “my garden” with stones, and watered it (as instructed by my mother).

The conker quickly became a sapling and before too long it was a 10ft high tree. It probably helped that it was planted in a sunny area, Manchester kept it watered, I watered it when I remembered. Apart from that, it was left to its own devices.

By the time it reached 13ft it was starting to shade my mother’s border plants in the summer and she announced it had to go. But rather than simply cut it down, my mother found it a new home. It was carefully dug up, with as many roots as we could get, and bundled in the back of a van. It wasn’t a scientific process, a few spades and 10 minutes work.

We drove it to my Aunt’s house in the Lancashire countryside 30 miles away, replanted it in their garden and I quickly forgot about it. Life moved on, I lived in America for 4 years, built companies and got married. And had two boys.

Although I had met my Aunt & Uncle at family gatherings I hadn’t been to their house for many a long year, until early in 2001 when we did a family road trip to see my family in Scotland, and decided to spend a night in Lancashire catching up with family there as well.

When we went out into the back garden of my Aunt’s house, there was a magnificent  Horse Chestnut tree, maybe 40 or 50 feet high. It was on the boundary of their land, and in the field next door, horses stood under it in the shade. That was in 2001 and thirteen years later the tree is visible on Google maps (near Wheelton in Lancashire but only I really know which one it is).

That tiny conker, found on a footpath near Runnymede, Surrey has grown into a magnificent tree, partly because of my nurturing, partly despite it. And when it mattered most it was left alone to do what it does best – grow.

Even the coolest Ice Queen will understand the relevance to what I do now – mentoring, advising and coaching start-ups and entrepreneurs. We just need to remember to give them space and let them get on with it when they need to.

Stuart

March 2014

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